Graduation 2019

Speech by Professor Tan Tai Yong, President, Yale-NUS College

at the Yale-NUS College Graduation Ceremony

13 May 2019 at University Cultural Centre


Mr Chee Hong Tat, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Trade and Industry and Ministry of Education;

Ambassador Chan Heng Chee, Presiding Officer and Member of the Yale-NUS Governing Board;

Members of the NUS Board of Trustees;

Professor Tan Eng Chye, President, NUS;

Graduands, Parents and Friends


Let me begin by wishing the Class of 2019 and their loved ones warm congratulations on this special occasion.

As many of you know, our College is in the midst of conducting an exercise to determine what our community thinks our core values should be – the ideals that we stand for as an institution.

During one of the meetings with a consultant, our students mentioned that they hoped Yale-NUS would help them to lead a good life.

The consultants thought that the students were referring to the traditional hallmarks of success: material gains, prestigious careers and lots of cash.

But that was not what the students meant at all. They clarified that the Good Life referred not to material wealth, but to living life well – doing so ethically and with a civic mindset; constantly thinking about others and contributing to the wider community.

In other words, they wanted their college education to help them answer what Russian author Leo Tolstoy has called “the only question important for us: ‘What shall we do, and how shall we live?’”

It should not come as a surprise that this question has been addressed in a multitude of ways throughout history, from Plato and Aristotle to Confucius, Nagasena, and the Bhagavad Gita. All of which, I am proud to say, our graduating students have read and interrogated as part of their Common Curriculum.

Nor should it be surprising that our students wish to come to grips with this question for themselves. You are, after all, not only critical, but compassionate thinkers – eager to make a meaningful impact on the world around you, and to use what you have been given to change things for the better.

How then can we live the Good Life? I hope that your time at Yale-NUS has given you not only the ability, but also the opportunity, to answer this question.

Many of you have been involved in projects and causes outside of classes, initiatives that you are passionate about and committed to – from saving the environmental to social and political causes, as well as artistic productions that question the status quo and explore what a better world might look like.

These were, and are, difficult questions to answer. Yet the same questions that confronted us as a community then, confront us as individuals now, and every day of our lives. The balance between taking care of your own interests on the one hand, and looking out for those of others on the other, is a difficult one. How can we navigate it?

Being aware of the privilege you have been given is a good start. So is thinking about how you can use this privilege to help others.

You have been privileged throughout your time here to have been exposed to an interdisciplinary liberal arts and sciences education; to have studied great texts and thinkers; and to have been taught by a dedicated and talented faculty.

You have classmates from around the globe with diverse backgrounds, and together you have formed a vibrant and dynamic campus community.

But your education has also taught you that the world is, in many ways, a broken place. Systems can be deeply flawed. People are flawed. As our society becomes increasingly complex, so too our problems. And, contrary to what might happen in popular superhero movies, we cannot make these problems disappear with a snap of our fingers.

Many of the problems the world currently faces require creative, courageous, and compassionate solutions. Solutions that perhaps you as an individual, or you together with a group of like-minded individuals, are equipped to provide.

Through the intellectual training you have received, the empathy you have nurtured through living and learning with each other, and the ‘can-do’ spirit all of you embody as you tirelessly campaign for changes that benefit the Yale-NUS community and beyond – all these skills and experiences that you are taking with you, you are now equipped to become change-makers in your own ways after leaving the College.

It is now up to you to answer Tolstoy’s question for yourselves. Knowing what you know about the world and your place within it, and having what you have: what shall you do, and how shall you live?

Graduands, I hope that your time at Yale-NUS has been enriching and meaningful. As you move on to exciting things ahead, I hope that you take with you fond memories, firm friendships, and, above all, the desire to use what you have been given to make the world a better place.

The next phase of your life will bring both opportunities and uncertainties. The prospect of having to find and navigate your way after the certainty and routine of four years of College will be at once exciting and daunting.

And it’s here that I’d like to recount something I came across recently when preparing for a lecture, and which has stayed with me since.

In the penultimate chapter in Sonny Liew’s graphic novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, our protagonist, Charlie Chan, is in his 50s, still a devoted cartoonist despite success proving elusive.

In a scene, he is transported back in time to when he was a young man living in pre-independence Singapore. Charlie is given the chance to reconsider his choices, knowing how his life will unfold:

[Here is his character speaking] “As for myself, there wasn’t very much to look forward to. Just a lifetime of writing and drawing stories that no one would ever read. Neither wealth nor acclaim.” “I’d be a fool to go down that road again”, he thinks, “Except…”

And this is what I found powerful and poignant.

Despite his misgivings, our protagonist makes the decision to continue pursuing what he is passionate about – comics, drawing, telling stories.

“What was life after all, but a constant battle between our hopes and harsh reality?”, he muses.

“But for now let me dream of all the comics I have yet to draw … the life I have yet to live…”

And on this note, I shall end my speech. As you move on, some of you may forge ahead confidently along more conventional paths, while some of you may find yourself searching for your bearings, going down paths less trodden; but that is fine.

We won’t know how life will pan out in the years ahead, but I sincerely hope you stay the course in your pursuit of a Good Life. May you have the tenacity to keep your aspirations and dreams intact.

Congratulations once again, Class of 2019.